This was the name of a final year course I studied at university. Like a lot of book lovers out there, I chose to read English Literature, and naively thought that it would entail three years of reading lovely books and generally lazing around. What I didn’t bargain for was the sheer amount of thinking I would have to do, and how fundamentally my attitudes about life and gender and history and how I perceived the world would be challenged and changed through the reading material I was assigned. I have always been interested in women’s writing and history, but never to the extent I became interested in it at university. There I learned for the first time how women had been sidelined from literature and history; how they had been allowed to become an unspoken, unmentioned background figure, sewing in the parlour while the men were at war; scribbling away at trivial, unworthy of note novels about their limited domestic sphere; living unrecorded, undervalued, hidden lives, prevented from having a voice. The more women’s literature courses I took, the more enraged I became. I discovered more and more fantastic writers whose books were no longer read, whose words had gone unheeded and unappreciated, simply because they were written by women and written about ‘trivial’ matters. It was then that I discovered Virago and Persephone, two publishing houses whose existence was built on the belief that women’s writing deserves to be read, and has a significance of equal weight to the male dominated canon of Western literature.
Something I find encouraging about Virago in particular is their insistence on publishing intelligent, thought provoking and wonderfully written novels about women’s experiences from across all class, racial, political, religious, and national divides. Many of their books are not cosy domestic novels, and subvert the common assumption that women’s novels are just about the pursuit of love and housework. As women became more educated and were able to express themselves through the medium of literature, women novelists sprung up all over the place, and from the 19th century onwards, we have a rich body of women’s writing to choose from in exploring the myriad of experiences of our female ancestors. From angels in the house to suffragettes to war time housewives to post modern feminists, Virago covers the entire spectrum. What I particularly enjoy is that Virago’s status as a feminist press does not preclude them from publishing literature without a feminist agenda. Women who advocate traditional values are not excluded from their list, and so a real picture of womanhood, rather than just one of radical feminism, can be achieved.
Going on from this, yesterday Virginia, a wonderful regular reader and commenter, posted a very thought provoking comment, saying that she found it interesting that Virago wasn’t afraid to publish women’s writing that wasn’t feminist. Her experience of reading Charlotte M Yonge had showed a woman writing to express her strong Christian morals of female subservience to men’s superior intellectual capabilities. Yonge’s prolific output of over 100 novels, and unmarried status, however, suggests a woman who was not particularly practicing what she preached. Making a very good living, with a career, and a house of her own, was hardly the lifestyle Yonge advocated for her own heroines. This interesting, conflicting attitude is also reflected in the work of another Virago author, Louisa May Alcott, whose widely adored children’s novels depict female happiness being found in marriage, but she herself preferred to ‘paddle her own canoe’, and relished her writing career. Of course, many women novelists of the 19th century felt the need to advocate an ideal lifestyle for women that they did not necessarily subscribe to in their novels because they needed to meet the expectations of their audience, who largely did believe that a woman’s place was in the home. Still, there is something subversive about extolling the virtues of subservient womanhood when you yourself are free to live a different life entirely.
Of late, I have noticed the same trend appearing amongst the heaving shelves of crowd pleaser pastel coloured chick lit novels filled with depressed thirty something single women desperate to get rings on their fingers. These successful career women who are writing these bestsellers are not so different to the Victorian female novelists with independent careers writing about the perfection and contentment of a closeted married life as the true pinnacle of happiness. It seems to me that Virago’s list of incendiary, passionate, wonderful novels by women written during the 20th century, are being lost in a market of fluffy, lazy, Disney fairytale – esque books that hold a happy ever after wedding day as the be all and end all of a woman’s life, taking traditional values to the extreme and denying the pleasures of the advances feminism has worked so hard for us to achieve. Do women today really want to read endless tripe about the desperate pursuit of diamond engagement rings, a cottage in the country, celebrity gossip and a Prince Charming? I certainly don’t.
So thank goodness for Virago. Thank goodness that I can read something intelligent and witty and thought provoking by a woman, that isn’t a shallow, cliche ridden pastel coloured novel about sparkly rings and mini breaks. The women who invented Virago, and the authors that originated their list, believed that women deserved better than this, and I heartily agree. We are complex, conflicting, passionate, intelligent, political, ambitious individuals who cannot be distilled into one concrete definition or given one path to happiness. Wherever we are from and whatever we believe, we all have something to say, and we all have a different outlook on the world. I object to the increasingly patronising, infantilised version of womanhood found in the bestseller lists, where women are defined by nothing but their marital status and the shoes they wear. Virago’s list of wonderful novels express the multitude of different lives, attitudes and experiences women have led and continue to lead, and the variety of aspirations, none being any more valid than others, that they have chosen to pursue. I only wish these books were more widely read by women today. I am proud to be co hosting a week of exploring such a diverse canon of women’s writing that expresses the diversity of the female sex, and I hope that those of you who are participating are finding plenty to provoke, inspire and interest you.
I am reading the exquisite Willa Cather this week. Her novels are filled with passionate, ambitious women, who go against the grain of society’s expectations for them. Alexandra Bergson in O, Pioneers! successfully transforms her father’s field into a business empire, and her greatest love is not a man, but a land that fills her heart with sublime joy and reassurance. A review will come at some point this week; in the meantime, I am thoroughly enjoying reading all of the wonderful contributions by so many of you, and will wrap up your posts this evening!